End of an era: Cement works in Westport closes after 58 years

By Lee Scanlon -
Cape Foulwind cement works in Westport. Holcim employed about 120 workers before it started winding down the operation. Photo / Supplied
Cape Foulwind cement works in Westport. Holcim employed about 120 workers before it started winding down the operation. Photo / Supplied

The Cape Foulwind cement works closes at midday tomorrow, ending 58 years of cement production in Westport.

Holcim signalled almost three years ago that it planned to close the works and import cement. The official closure date was June 30, but works manager Clark Nelson said today that the power to the plant was being shut off tomorrow. The 80 or so remaining workers would leave at midday, he said.

Holcim employed about 120 in Westport before it started winding down.

By next week, Mr Nelson and security staff - several of whom will be former cement works' employees - will be the only people rattling around the once bustling site.

Mr Nelson will stay on to manage the decommissioning. He expects demolition to start next year and take at least a year, depending on what sells and what has to be disposed of.

The cement works, packing plant, wharf silos and quarry are for sale, along with over 500ha of land and 11 houses. Expressions of interest close on July 14.

Most of the redundant cement workers are staying in Westport - at least for now. Mr Nelson said some would retire or semi-retire, some had already found jobs, others were staying around for a few months to decide what next.

Holcim Cement manager Ross Pickworth was arriving from Christchurch today for his final farewell. Mr Pickworth's job also disappears with the Westport works' closure.

There will be more farewells tomorrow evening when Holcim cement carrier, the Westport, leaves Westport harbour for the last time. She is scheduled to sail across the bar about 5pm with the final 2500 tonnes of cement from the wharf silos. A crowd is expected on the Westport breakwaters to watch her go.

Among them will be shipping administrator, Trisha Cropp, Holcim's longest-serving female employee. She started at the Westport cement works as an office worker in 1984.

"I'll feel sad to see that ship go tomorrow," she said this morning as she packed 32 years of her work history into a carton.

Mrs Cropp has a few more days in her Cape Foulwind office, training her Timaru-based replacement, before finishing work on July 6. She plans to take a holiday - she hasn't had one in two years - then seek part-time work.

Her husband Alan finishes 46 years at the cement works tomorrow. He went there straight from school to do a diesel mechanic apprenticeship.

"It will be a tough old day tomorrow," he said, with tears in his eyes.

He is almost at retiring age, but some of his mates aren't. "That's what's going to hurt -- worrying about them -- I'm OK."

He has plenty of voluntary work on the go, including the Millennium Walkway and the Kawatiri River Trail.

Brian Waldren, 68, a scaffolder, sandblaster and kiln brick maker, started at the works as a general labourer 44 years and nine months ago.

He could have retired twice in the past three years but both times the company convinced him to stay on.

Tomorrow would be "pretty sad", he said.

"I've enjoyed it with the men, they are a good bunch of jokers. We all have our different ways and arguments, but at the end of the day they all combine and help you out."

All the workers Westport News spoke to praised Holcim as an employer, despite the fact it was now putting them out of work.

"We can't blame anything, it's progress," Mr Waldren said. "These wet process plants around the world average about 25 years [life]. We haven't done bad, have we? And right beside one of the worst coasts you can get for salt water."

Mr Nelson, who started work as an apprentice fitter at Cape Foulwind in 1995, also spoke highly of the company.

"Look at the career opportunities I've had. I know they've looked after me extremely well."

In July 2014, Holcim began a Tools for the Future programme to help equip workers for after the works closed, he said. It ran courses like barista training and chainsaw skills, and gave every worker a toolbox. Workers received tools for their toolboxes when they met targets.

On Monday this week every worker received their final gift -- an umbrella and a ratchet spanner set.

- Westport News

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